Choosing Pronounceable Brand Names: Learning from the Cuil Story

Recently I wrote a detailed note about the process of discovering and selecting brand names that are search engine friendly -- Branding in the Age of Search Engines.  What this note did not cover was the issue of pronounceability  which is a problem so complex it would not fit into a single bullet point but is critically important for businesses.

When the Internet search site Cuil closed last month I was not surprised. I believe a number of factors contributed to this closure, but one of them is certainly the fact that they had to teach people how to pronounce their name. The founders explained that it should be pronounced like "kool", which they said was an Irish word meaning knowledge, though language experts disputed this.

You might think that making a pronounceable name is a no brainer, but there are actually several separate issues you need to think about, and Cuil got all three wrong.

1. CAN NATIVE SPEAKERS MISPRONOUNCE IT?   Unless you are not yourself a native speaker in your own market I assume that you can judge if a candidate brand is pronounceable or not. Just try it yourself and ask a few friends. Ideally everyone you ask should be able to pronounce it in the way you intend, but be prepared that there might be alternatives. If any of these alternatives sounds bad or silly you might consider using another name for your list. Occasionally a customer mispronunciations actually improves a brand, so you  don't need to change it. Wifi, for example, is officially pronounced like HiFi -- where the "i"s are read like "eye", though many today say it more like "wiffy", which to many is actually an improvement. Champagne producer Moet & Chandon has also learnt to accept without complaining the pronunciation "Mo-ay" even though the correct way would be more like "Mo-ett". Cuil broke this rule completely since nobody at all could pronounce it without help.

2. DOES IT SOUND TOO CLOSE TO ANY UNFORTUNATE WORD?  Even if everyone can pronounce your brand perfectly I would still advise caution if it is too close to any word that has negative or ridiculous connotations. This might be hard for you to do yourself, but ask a few friends -- though enemies would be better -- if they can think of any funny, snarky or nasty headlines featuring your candidate brand. Some names are just too easy to ridicule, while others just don't rhyme with the right words or don't echo other cultural memes. Google, for example, is a real challenge for wordplay jokers. Cuil broke this rule, too, because it was just too tempting to write, as TNW did in September 2011 "Cuil not so cool anymore".

3. WILL IT SOUND GOOD TO SPEAKERS OF OTHER LANGUAGES?  Assuming you are hoping to succeed in global markets, you should be careful to check that the name doesn't sound or look terrible to speakers of other major languages. I have seen software tools supposed to do this but I have never seen one that works. I suspect they are made by people who do not really understand how language works. There is no substitute for just asking a sample of people from around the world to comment on how they would pronounce the word and how it sounds to them. You'd be amazed how many brands mean something unfortunate in other languages and this can impact your business. I mentioned this before in the article about offensive trademarks.  It is extremely unlikely that you can find a brand that everyone in the world can pronounce in the way you intended, but as long as there is an acceptable pronounciation in each market this is not really a problem. Twinings Tea, for example, gave up trying to get people in Italy to pronounce it the English way and just used the normal Italian pronunciation in their TV ads.  Cuil got this wrong, too, since the official pronunciation, but not the spelling, of Cuil would also have been thumbed down by French speakers.

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Related posts on Branding and Reputation Management:

Choosing Pronounceable Brand Names: Lessons from the Cuil Saga
Five Simple Steps to Improve Your Online Reputation
Branding in the Age of Search Engines
Why Having Accounts on Photo Sharing Sites Is Good for Your Image
Sign Up Now: Joining New Networking Sites Boosts Brand, Reputation


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